Southern states highest in food insecurity

Many Southern states face higher rates of food insecurity, and summer can be especially difficult to put food on the table. The nonprofit R3 Inc. and the city of Charleston help Meagan Odom (from left), Nikita Malloy, both 9, and Morgan Harris, 6, find nutrition Thursday at the Shaw Community Center.

Wade Spees

Everything tends to be bigger in the South — including food insecurity.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, the six states with the highest food insecurity are in the South, holding significantly higher rates compared with national averages.

Texas ranked behind a two-way tie for first between Mississippi and Arkansas for food insecurity, a measurement of how many families face difficulty finding a steady source of food. The Lone Star State was followed by Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina.

South Carolina holds the No. 31 spot, with 14.8 percent of the population facing food insecurity.

“From 2007 to 2008, food insecurity increased across the U.S. from 11 percent to 14.6 percent,” said Alisha Coleman-Jensen, social science analyst with the USDA ERS.The economic downturn from the Great Recession has been a catalyst for higher food insecurity.

Poverty, lower education levels, higher tax burdens and higher unemployment rates are present in concert with higher rates of food insecurity, Coleman-Jensen said. There is no single root of the problem, but its reasons are complex.

“Since 2008, (the rates) have been relatively stable.”

Coleman-Jensen added that 2008 to 2011 represents the highest rates the USDA Economic Research Service has seen since the group began tracking food insecurity in 1995.

At the Shaw Community Center on Mary Street in Charleston, Eric Jackson begins his second job.

The equipment tech at Roper St. Francis wears his scrubs down to the center, where the nonprofit organization he founded, R3 Inc., serves dinner for 55 to 65 kids daily.

Jackson said many of the children are living in impoverished areas, with nearly 95 percent of the kids receiving reduced meals when school is in session.

“Everything revolves around economics,” he said.

The important part, Jackson said, is explaining to the kids and teenagers to learn about the essential food groups. Too often, he said, people in the area will pick the cheaper option at the expense of nutrition.

“We educate them on the eating process as well as giving them something to eat over the summer,” Jackson said.

When it comes to other factors, particularly for children, the South remains ranked in the wrong direction, although rates in the Southwest and West have been dropping, too.

When it comes to the number of children in poverty, 12 Southern states rank in the bottom 15, according to Kids Count. In health rankings by the same group, half of the bottom 20 are Southern states.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, six Southern states have unemployment rates higher than the national average, ranking in the bottom 15 of state-by-state comparisons. Seven Southern states rank in the bottom 15 for their populations having a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to U.S. Census data.

Charlotte Anderson, vice president of 211 services at Trident United Way, said the biggest purpose for TUW and the 211 hotline is to help people by directing them to the resources they may need.

“One person needs a uniform to keep their job. One needs computer training to get a better job,” Anderson said.

For those who are un- or under-employed, food security naturally becomes a bigger issue.

With unemployment still at 8 percent in South Carolina, that leaves thousands struggling to put food on the table.

The access to healthy and nutritious food may not be restricted by money but also by distance. Food deserts are defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as urban areas with a substantial amount of the population living farther than a mile away from fresh and inexpensive food for a healthy diet at grocery stores or supermarkets. In rural areas, the metric is 10 miles.

The Southeast is riddled with spots where at least 5 percent of the area was in a food desert, from East Austin to Raleigh, according to data published by the USDA in 2009.

USDA ERS economist Michelle Ver Ploeg said there are several factors relating to the prevalence of food deserts that are still not well understood. Two large factors Ver Ploeg listed were low-income areas and transportation infrastructure.

“Those that are poorer tend to be farther from supermarkets,” Ver Ploeg said.

A big concern for North Charleston residents has been Shipwatch Square, in an area where many are too far away from a grocery store. In December, a plan to sell the lot was announced, in the city’s continued hope to bring a grocery store to the area.

Ryan Johnson, North Charleston spokesman, said there are no updates on the sale and that Chicora Gardens LLC, the prospective buyer, is still doing its own research into the purchase.

Although there is not much research completed on the influence of food deserts on food insecurity, Ver Ploeg said one hypothesis is the cost and time to find healthier and more varied foods.

“If it costs more and it takes more time to reach a store, that may affect their food insecurity,” Ver Ploeg said.

Reach Nick Watson at 937-4810.